The Glorious Music of a Holy Priest
By Losana Boyd
It is the Mass at Midnight celebrating the Nativity of Our Lord in New York City. From the choir loft and the semi-darkness of St. Patrick’s Cathedral a hauntingly beautiful line of music begins to sound. The glorious motet “O Magnum Mysterium” written by the 16th Century Spanish priest and composer Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548-1611), soon engulfs the enormous interior, creating a stunning, complex and interwoven harmony, and capturing in sound something of the miraculous and incomprehensible mystery that surrounds Our Lord’s Incarnation.
Hearing Victoria’s music creates an unforgettable experience of longing. Piercing the darkness of a broken, fallen world, sight and sound seem restored one to another, as a beam of inexpressible light emerges in the form of a harmonic intensity.
An Atmosphere of Holiness: His Early Years with St Teresa of Avila and St Philip Neri
Tomas Luis de Victoria’s genius flourished in the environment of great holiness that was the Spanish Golden Age.
THE WALLS THAT TOMAS LUIS DE VICTORIA KNEW:
St. Teresa of Avila herself mentored the young prodigy.
Answering God’s call to the priesthood, Victoria traveled to Rome in 1565 where he completed his theological studies at the German college, founded by St. Ignatius Loyola. Ordained a priest on August 28, 1574, Victoria lived in community with St. Philip Neri for seven years, for whom he served as chaplain of San Girolamo della Carità. During this profound and intensely religious period several collections of Masses, motets as well as two anthologies of his work were published.
“Music is not man’s invention, but his heritage from the blessed spirits.” – Tomas Luis De Victoria
“At a time when Palestrina was composing works of a delicately balanced nature and with a continuous, gracefully undulating rhythmic flow, Tomas Luis de Victoria’s bold melodic contours and strong harmonic statements daringly reflected the emotion of the texts he was setting,” said Deborah Gordillo, Composer-in-Residence at St. Patrick’s Cathedral from 2007-2011.
“The Kyrie of Victoria’s Missa Dominicalis is a stellar example of his innovations in juxtaposing the old with the new. Its form is based on a cantus firmus, which is introduced in long rhythmic values in two of the four voices, each entering at different times so as to create a canon. What Victoria did instead was to compose another canon for two of the voices, using completely different linear material as their tonal base. In contrast to the more traditional canons of the day, Victoria’s second canon interrupts the expectation of the listener with rhythmic variety and harmonic tension to more effectively probe the content of the pleading text.” — Deborah Gordillo, Composer-in-Residence at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, NYC, 2007-2011
Today’s Renaissance in De Victoria’s Music
TODAY, VICTORIA’S MUSIC IS ENJOYING A RENAISSANCE OF ITS OWN. From cathedrals throughout the new world and old, his music calls the faithful to profound devotion.
Rich in musical depth and harmonic complexity, every note of Victoria’s music was written for the glory of God. From the sublime “O Magnum Mysterium,” to the impassioned “O Vos Omnes” Victoria’s is a sound like no other. Heaven itself seems to weep in “The Reproaches of Good Friday,” and rejoice with his transcendent “Gloria in Excelsis Deo.” His Officium Defunctorum, a Requiem Mass written for Spanish Empress Maria, is widely regarded as his masterpiece and crowning musical achievement.
In a notebook he kept alongside his scores, the deep humility of this servant of God is revealed, as he asks future generations not to judge harshly his efforts to compose sacred music.
AVILA CATHEDRAL, where the young Tomas Luis De Victoria began his musical training as a choir boy in the 1550s.
O Magnum Mysterium:
O Vos Omnes: